Theories of technology

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There are a number of theories attempting to address technology, which tend to be associated with the disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and communication studies. Most generally, the theories attempt to address the relationship between technology and society and prompt questions about agency, determinism/autonomy, and teleonomy.

If forced, one might categorize them into social and group theories. Additionally, one might distinguish between descriptive and critical theories. Descriptive theories attempt to address the definition and substance of technology, the ways it has emerged, changed and its relation to the human/social sphere. More substantively it addresses the extent of which technology is autonomous and how much force it has in determining human practice or social structure. Critical theories of technology often take a descriptive theory as their basis and articulate concerns, examining what way the relationship can be changed. The authors mentioned in this article are those that have some concern with technology or media, though they often borrow from one another and of course build upon seminal theorists that preceded them.

Social theories

Descriptive approaches

  • Social construction of technology (SCOT) - argues that technology does not determine human action, but that human action shapes technology. Key concepts include:
    • interpretive flexibility: "Technological artifacts are culturally constructed and interpreted ... By this we mean not only that there is flexibility in how people think of or interpret artifacts but also that there is flexibility in how artifacts are designed."
    • Relevant social group: shares a particular set of meanings about an artifact
    • 'Closure' and stabilization: when the relevant social group has reached a consensus
    • Wider context: "the sociocultural and political situation of a social group shapes its norms and values, which in turn influence the meaning given to an artifact"
Key authors include MacKensie and Wajcman (1985) & Armando and Gab (2015).
  • Actor-network theory (ANT) - posits a heterogeneous network of humans and non-humans as equal interrelated actors. It strives for impartiality in the description of human and nonhuman actors and the reintegration of the natural and social worlds. For example, Latour (1992) argues that instead of worrying whether we are anthropomorphizing technology, we should embrace it as inherently anthropomorphic: technology is made by humans, substitutes for the actions of humans, and shapes human action. What is important is the chain and gradients of actors' actions and competences, and the degree to which we choose to have figurative representations. Key concepts include the inscription of beliefs, practices, relations into technology, which is then said to embody them. Key authors include Latour (1997) and Callon (1999).
  • Structuration theory - defines structures as rules and resources organized as properties of social systems. The theory employs a recursive not°ion of actions constrained and enabled by structures which are produced and reproduced by that action. Consequently, in this theory technology is not rendered as an artifact, but instead examines how people, as they interact with a technology in their ongoing practices,enact structures which shape their emergent and situated use of that technology. Key authors include DeSantis and Poole (1990), and Orlikowski (1992).
  • Systems theory - considers the historical development of technology and media with an emphasis on inertia and heterogeneity, stressing the connections between the artifact being built and the social, economic, political and cultural factors surrounding it. Key concepts include reverse salients when elements of a system lag in development with respect to others, differentiation, operational closure, and autopoietic autonomy. Key authors include Thomas P. Hughes (1992) and Luhmann (2000).
  • Activity theory

Critical approaches

Critical theory goes beyond a descriptive account of how things are, to examine why they have come to be that way, and how they might otherwise be. Critical theory asks whose interests are being served by the status quo and assesses the potential of future alternatives to better serve social justice. According to Geuss's definition, "a critical theory, then, is a reflective theory which gives agents a kind of knowledge inherently productive of enlightenment and emancipation" (1981: 2). Critical theory has the explicit normative and political intent of going beyond mere description to produce actual change.

Along with other Frankfurt School critical theorists Herbert Marcuse began developing a critical theory of technology in both soviet communism and western capitalism in 'One Dimensional Man' (1964). Marcuse argued that whilst matters of technology design are often presented as neutral technical choices in fact they manifest political or moral values. Critical theory is a form of archaeology that attempt to get beneath common-sense understandings in order to reveal the power relationships and interests determining particular technological configuration and use.

Perhaps the most developed contemporary critical theory of technology is contained in the works of Andrew Feenberg including 'Transforming Technology' (2002).

  • Values in Design - asks how do we ensure a place for values (alongside technical standards such as speed, efficiency, and reliability) as criteria by which we judge the quality and acceptability of information systems and new media. How do values such as privacy, autonomy, democracy, and social justice become integral to conception, design, and development, not merely retrofitted after completion? Key thinkers include Helen Nissenbaum (2001).

Other stances

Additionally, many authors have posed technology so as to critique and or emphasize aspects of technology as addressed by the mainline theories. For example, Steve Woolgar (1991) considers technology as text in order to critique the sociology of scientific knowledge as applied to technology and to distinguish between three responses to that notion: the instrumental response (interpretive flexibility), the interpretivist response (environmental/organizational influences), the reflexive response (a double hermeneutic). Pfaffenberger (1992) treats technology as drama to argue that a recursive structuring of technological artifacts and their social structure discursively regulate the technological construction of political power. A technological drama is a discourse of technological "statements" and "counterstatements" within the processes of technological regularization, adjustment, and reconstitution.

An important philosophical approach to technology has been taken by Bernard Stiegler, whose work has been influenced by other philosophers and historians of technology including Gilbert Simondon and André Leroi-Gourhan. In the Schumpeterian and Neo-Schumpeterian theories technologies are critical factors of economic growth (Carlota Perez).

Group theories

There are also a number of technology related theories that address how (media) technology affects group processes. Broadly, these theories are concerned with the social effects of communication media. Some (e.g., media richness) are concerned with questions of media choice (i.e., when to use what medium effectively). Other theories (social presence, SIDE, media naturalness) are concerned with the consequences of those media choices (i.e., what are the social effects of using particular communication media).

  • Social presence theory (Short, et al., 1976) is a seminal theory of the social effects of communication technology. Its main concern is with telephony and telephone conferencing (the research was sponsored by the British Post Office, now British Telecom). It argues that the social impact of a communication medium depend on the social presence it allows communicators to have. Social presence is defined as a property of the medium itself: the degree of acoustic, visual, and physical contact that it allows. The theory assumes that more contact will increase the key components of "presence": greater intimacy, immediacy, warmth and inter-personal rapport. As a consequence of social presence, social influence is expected to increase. In the case of communication technology, the assumption is that more text-based forms of interaction (e-mail, instant messaging) are less social, and therefore less conducive to social influence.
  • Media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986) shares some characteristics with social presence theory. It posits that the amount of information communicated differs with respect to a medium's richness. The theory assumes that resolving ambiguity and reducing uncertainty are the main goals of communication. Because communication media differ in the rate of understanding they can achieve in a specific time (with "rich" media carrying more information), they are not all capable of resolving uncertainty and ambiguity well. The more restricted the medium's capacity, the less uncertainty and equivocality it is able to manage. It follows that the richness of the media should be matched to the task so as to prevent over simplification or complication.
  • Media naturalness theory (Kock, 2001; 2004) builds on human evolution ideas and has been proposed as an alternative to media richness theory. Media naturalness theory argues that since our Stone Age hominid ancestors have communicated primarily face-to-face, evolutionary pressures have led to the development of a brain that is consequently designed for that form of communication. Other forms of communication are too recent and unlikely to have posed evolutionary pressures that could have shaped our brain in their direction. Using communication media that suppress key elements found in face-to-face communication, as many electronic communication media do, thus ends up posing cognitive obstacles to communication. This is particularly the case in the context of complex tasks (e.g., business process redesign, new product development, online learning), because such tasks seem to require more intense communication over extended periods of time than simple tasks.
  • Media synchronicity theory (MST, Dennis & Valacich, 1999) redirects richness theory towards the synchronicity of the communication.
  • The Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE) (Postmes, Spears and Lea 1999; Reicher, Spears and Postmes, 1995; Spears & Lea, 1994) was developed as a response to the idea that anonymity and reduced presence made communication technology socially impoverished (or "deindividuated"). It provided an alternative explanation for these "deindividuation effects" based on theories of social identity (e.g., Turner et al., 1987). The SIDE model distinguishes cognitive and strategic effects of a communication technology. Cognitive effects occur when communication technologies make "salient" particular aspects of personal or social identity. For example, certain technologies such as email may disguise characteristics of the sender that individually differentiate them (i.e., that convey aspects of their personal identity) and as a result more attention may be given to their social identity. The strategic effects are due to the possibilities, afforded by communication technology, to selectively communicate or enact particular aspects of identity, and disguise others. SIDE therefore sees the social and the technological as mutually determining, and the behavior associated with particular communication forms as the product or interaction of the two.
  • Time, interaction, and performance (TIP; McGrath, 1991) theory describes work groups as time-based, multi-modal, and multi-functional social systems. Groups interact in one of the modes of inception, problem solving, conflict resolution, and execution. The three functions of a group are production (towards a goal), support (affective) and well-being (norms and roles).

Analytic theories

Finally, there are theories of technology which are not defined or claimed by a proponent, but are used by authors in describing existing literature, in contrast to their own or as a review of the field.

For example, Markus and Robey (1988) propose a general technology theory consisting of the causal structures of agency (technological, organizational, imperative, emergent), its structure (variance, process), and the level (micro, macro) of analysis.

Orlikowski (1992) notes that previous conceptualizations of technology typically differ over scope (is technology more than hardware?) and role (is it an external objective force, the interpreted human action, or an impact moderated by humans?) and identifies three models:

  1. Technological imperative: focuses on organizational characteristics which can be measured and permits some level of contingency
  2. Strategic choice: focuses on how technology is influenced by the context and strategies of decision-makers and users
  3. Technology as a trigger of structural change: views technology as a social object

DeSanctis and Poole (1994) similarly write of three views of technology's effects:

  1. Decision-making: the view of engineers associated with positivist, rational, systems rationalization, and deterministic approaches
  2. Institutional school: technology is an opportunity for change, focuses on social evolution, social construction of meaning, interaction and historical processes, interpretive flexibility, and an interplay between technology and power
  3. An integrated perspective (social technology): soft-line determinism, with joint social and technological optimization, structural symbolic interaction theory

Bimber (1998) addresses the determinacy of technology effects by distinguishing between the:

  1. Normative: an autonomous approach where technology is an important influence on history only where societies attached cultural and political meaning to it (e.g., the industrialization of society)
  2. Nomological: a naturalistic approach wherein an inevitable technological order arises based on laws of nature (e.g., steam mill had to follow the hand mill).
  3. 'Unintended consequences:' a fuzzy approach that is demonstrative that technology is contingent (e.g., a car is faster than a horse, but unbeknownst to its original creators become a significant source of pollution)


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